11 oct. 2008

The Face of Adoption

Du site The Korea Times, le 2 octobre 2008

By Andrei Lankov

For decades, South Korea was the major source of adopted babies throughout the Western world. According to a recent estimate, over the years 1950-2000, some 150,000 Korean infants found a new home overseas.

Nowadays, the Korean adoptees form a large community ― and in recent years they have begun to rediscover their connection to Korea.

Most of the infants were adopted by middle and upper-middle class families who had next to no information on Korea _ and in many cases were not that interested in this East Asian country. This meant that many Korean adoptees grew up without any exposure to the Korean language and culture.

Were they happy? In recent decades Korean media has often run sensational stories about Korean children being mistreated and abused by their adopted parents. Such things did happen, but they were the exception to the rule; most families treated them very well ― as most people treat their children.

Nonetheless, growing up with a Korean face ― but without any knowledge of things Korean ― somewhere in a small American town was not easy. There were cases of discrimination, and many adoptees suffered from being visually different.

On the other hand, many were rejected by the Korean and other Asian communities, since they did not speak Korean and because the adoption itself was seen as a stigma by more traditional-minded Koreans.

Even if the adoptees did not experience outright discrimination, they were often stereotyped as members of the ``model minority.'' Many still bitterly remember that they were supposed to excel in math and science, as most Asian students do ― as if this were an inherited genetic trait, not a part of culture.

One adoptee even complained that in order to break these stereotypes, she ``built a wall around math and science.''

The contradictions of these experiences meant that they tended to stick together. Over the last decade or so, they have begun to establish their own organizations ― the Global Overseas Adoptees Link (GOAL) being, probably, the largest.

In September 1999, over four hundred adult adoptees from across the United States gathered in Washington to discuss their problems and experiences. ``The Gathering'' as it came to be known was addressed by Korea's first lady, the wife of the then President Kim Dae-jung.

This indicated an important sea change. The adoptees' search for roots was increasingly welcomed by Korean officialdom. For decades, the issues surrounding international adoption had been ignored by Korean media and public opinion.

In the 1980s, it came to be seen as a national disgrace, which was damaging the country's international image. In the 1990s, Korean authorities and corporations discovered the political and economic benefits associated with them.

Indeed, most of them had been adopted by successful middle- and upper-middle-class families and were given a privileged `starting position' in their careers. Nowadays, many of them are successful and prominent ― or, at least, well on their way to becoming successful and prominent.

Thus it comes as no surprise that the long-ignored adoptees are now being courted by Korean government agencies. To some extent, this is explained by a sense of guilt they have toward the children who were abandoned in harsh times, but political and commercial considerations are definitely playing a major role in the recent change of policies.

In 1999, the adoptees were officially recognized by the Korean government as ``overseas Koreans.'' They are eligible for the F-4 visa, which gives them the right to stay and work in Korea for two years, as well as to buy property and invest here under special conditions.

The government agencies, the Overseas Korean Foundation in particular, often stage tours for Korean adoptees to expose them to Korean culture, language, and tradition. Some tried to locate their biological families.

For example, Susan Sufford, a promising violinist and 2002 Miss America finalist stirred a bit of publicity with her reunion with her biological parents (her unwed mother gave Susan up for adoption in 1975).

The experiences of adoptees in Korea vary enormously. Some of them found comfort and even try to ``re-Koreanize'' themselves, while others discover that, after all, their cultural heritage is much more powerful than their biological connections.

As one adoptee put it ``your culture is not your face.'' This fact is often underestimated in Korea.

Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at anlankov@yahoo.com.

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